Beth Miller

Writing and tea

Interview with Alexei Sayle

The short story had been in dusty decline for many years, but lately has made something of a come-back. Its revival is due in part to events such as Charleston’s Small Wonder Festival, a four day celebration of all things short story-ish. This year’s starry line-up includes A.S. Byatt, Salley Vickers, Joseph O’Connor and Michele Roberts. Flicking through the programme I thought for one heart-quickening moment that Colin Firth was also appearing, and he is, but only in celluloid form – a late-night showing of A Single Man. There are events for families too, including the intriguing-sounding House of Fairytales, a storytelling/theatre thing which runs over a whole weekend.

Last year I attended the legendary short story slam (my name wasn’t picked from the hat so I can’t report on a marvellous triumph), and to the lovely Stories under the Stars, which took place in a cushion-strewn Arabian tent. The slam is on again – take entries along on the night - and the tent will host a music event this time.

The speaker I am most keen to see is Alexei Sayle, himself an accomplished short story writer. I spoke to Mr Sayle the other day and asked if he would have been a member of the Bloomsbury Set had he been around in the 1920s. ‘No! They would have hated me and I would have hated them’, he said. ‘We would cut each other dead at salons.’ On further reflection he made an exception for Lytton Strachey, who looked as if he ‘liked a laugh.’

Alexei’s writing CV is impressive: tv scripts, five novels, two short story collections plus ‘almost enough for another collection’, and most recently a memoir entitled Stalin Ate My Homework. He enjoyed writing the memoir most, though it took a while to get the technique: ‘I threw a first draft away.’

I asked Alexei if he had any unfulfilled ambitions, other than the one noted in his blog: to be on the ‘pretentious’ South Bank Show. He confessed that he would love to win a literary prize – ‘or be short-listed. Or even just long-listed.’ His proudest achievement was having made the transition from comedian to serious writer, and he felt an award would be a fine acknowledgement of that.

The conversation returned to short stories, the best of which, he said, were like ‘little gems’. His favourite short story writers were Raymond Carver, Saki and Graham Greene. And his favourite story was Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, which he described ‘as like nothing you’ve ever read.’

The festival programme is also like nothing you’ve ever read, taking in as it does not just writing workshops, interviews and discussions, but also plays, the actress Kerry Fox, ping pong, conversation cards, tiny figurines and other little gems.

Beth Miller. Published in Viva Lewes, September 2010